Sunday August 12, 2012
General Monsoon plays truant
By Coomi Kapoor
A drought is a huge administrative challenge for the Indian government while it further adds to the misery of subsistence farmers.
IT is official now. After dawdling for several weeks, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has reluctantly conceded that “drought-like” conditions are developing in several states.
And most of these states, where the southwest monsoon is at least 25% deficient, happen to be in the grain bowl of the country.
The IMD’s earlier reluctance did not stem as much from a deficient forecast model or even from a lack of scientific tools. Rather, it was rooted in fears that a public acknowledgement of a bad monsoon could result in a spurt in food prices and cause hoarding of food stocks by speculators.
Overall rainfall this season is particularly deficient in Punjab, Haryana, Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Nearly 25% shortfall in seasonal rains has created drought-like conditions in these areas. As a result, the sowing of kharif (padi) is seriously affected.
Even though the agriculture sector now accounts for only about 15% of the GDP, it still employs more than half of the working population directly or indirectly. A bad monsoon is bound to result in less money for the rural people. This, in turn, would depress sale of goods and services in the rural areas.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, was concerned that the deficient monsoon would bring down the overall growth rate of the economy. Deficient rainfall will further burden the exchequer and thus add to the already bloated fiscal deficit.
Weeks before the IMD officially forecast a low rainfall, the Prime Minister had convened a meeting of ministers to discuss the situation arising from the drought. Special financial assistance for a couple of states affected by the shortfall in monsoon rains was approved by the government. Even Bihar sought a special package, insisting that 25 of its 38 administrative districts were rain-deficient. So did neighbouring Jharkhand. It is not uncommon for the states to overstate the extent of shortfall with an eye on a bigger assistance package from the federal government.
Fortunately, India has come a long way from the time when a drought threatened mass starvation and even deaths. Back in the early 50s and 60s, when agriculture accounted for over one-half of the GDP, while nearly three-quarters of the population was dependent on it for subsistence, India had to go with a begging bowl to the United States for food aid.
In those early years of freedom, India was so poor and hardly had any foreign exchange to pay for food imports, that it relied on the Public Law 480 food for aid programme of the US.
This was doubly humiliating for national pride since India was widely considered to be part of the Soviet bloc in the Cold War era and would lecture the US for its various acts of omission and commission, real or imaginary. Indeed, in those early years after Independence, it was said that Indians lived a from ship-to-mouth existence.
However, after the Green Revolution in the early 70s, when food production rose substantially thanks to new variety of seeds and better cropping patterns, India succeeded in vastly mitigating its misery even in drought years. Besides, a better network of roads and communications helped in food reaching inaccessible parts of the country.
Also, a rise in incomes in urban areas meant that dependence on staple foods such as wheat and rice came down even as the consumption of “costly” alternatives such as meats, eggs, vegetables, etc increased.
Yet, post-Green Revolution, death by starvation had become a thing of the past. Nobody dies for want of food now.
But food prices will come under pressure due to drought. As it is, food inflation is ruling in double digits, thus hurting the common man. Prices of lowly vegetables and staple foods have risen sharply in recent weeks.
Though the buffer stock of food grains in government warehouses is over 80 million tonnes, enough to meet any eventuality, the Government has failed to deploy these stocks strategically, with critics commenting that the authorities would rather leave the grains to rot in the open or let rodents feast on them than release the stocks in the market at moderate prices. The reluctance to distribute stored food grains freely even in a drought year has made many critics angry.
One of the main objectives of launching the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in 2006 was to make the country drought-proof. Under it, each able-bodied adult in rural areas was assured of 100 days of work per annum and the scheme was to help create durable assets like canals, water reservoirs, etc. Despite spending well over US$20bil (RM62bil), there has been no improvement in augmenting water supply through rain harvesting, building of new canals and water bodies and generally protecting the environment.
Yet, it is the failure of successive state and central governments that even today, the country is far from being drought-proof. This is the third drought this century, the last being in 2009. But General Monsoon still rules the roost in most prosperous states which serve as the granary of the country.
From the time the British laid a network of canals to irrigate large parts of the north, there has been only tardy progress in further expanding the system.
Instead, whatever additional irrigation capacity was built in the last few decades, it was reliant on power-driven tube wells. This has created its own problems. Power for farmers being highly subsidised, excessive water is drawn from tube wells. This in turn has depleted the water table. In states like Punjab, the water table is now down from 4m to 6m in the 1960s to over 30m.
Even the canal system has become erratic due to shortfall and low levels of water in the feeding reservoirs. Such is the environmental degradation that even all-weather rivers like the Yamuna hardly have much water during 10 months of the year.
Thus, a drought is a huge administrative challenge for the government while it further adds to the misery of subsistence farmers.